'Covering': Examining the Effects of Assimilation
FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
I'm Farai Chideya and this is NEWS AND NOTES. Kenji Yoshino is the author of Covering: The Hidden Assault on our Civil Rights, which posits civil rights and the issues of identity in a new manner. He also is a Harvard graduate and the deputy dean for intellectual life and Professor of Law at Yale Law School. Welcome, Kenji.
Mr. KENJI YOSHINO (Author, Covering: The Hidden Assault on our Civil Rights, and Professor of Law, Yale Law School): Thank you so much for having me, Farai.
CHIDEYA: Now let me ask you this: what was the source that you originally found that made you aware of the term covering and what does it mean?
Mr. YOSHINO: The source was sociologist Irving Goffman's 1963 book, Stigma, and what really intrigued me about it was that he was contrasting two terms: passing and covering. And covering, under his definition is downplaying on identity that is known to others.
CHIDEYA: You, yourself, talk about your journey as a gay man or your journey to become an openly gay man, particularly with your family. Tell us about the first time that you discussed your sexuality with them. And where were you in the process of covering at that point?
Mr. YOSHINO: The way that I tell the story in the book is as a movement through three weakening demands for assimilation, first conversion, then passing, and then covering. And so in the first phase, conversion, all I wanted to do was to become straight. And then in the second phase in my young adulthood, once I had accepted the fact that I was gay, I none-the-less passed to other people. And what was really curious is that even after I came after out to my parents and came pass passing phase, I still felt this nagging urge or pressure to conform to straight norms.
So even to people to whom I was out, I would do things like not engage in public displays of same sex affection or not to be kind of too cute gay, not to kind of affiliate too much with gay culture.
CHIDEYA: So can tell us about some the other forms of covering?
Mr. YOSHINO: Absolutely. There's appearance, which is how you self-present to the world physically. So in the gay context, it's being kind of straight acting. The second one is affiliation, which is how much you culturally affiliate with gay culture. And then finally there's association, which is how much you choose gay people as your fellow traveler, your lovers, your friends, your colleagues, etc.
CHIDEYA: Now, given all of these different types of covering and the fact that you're really talking broadly, not just about the gay rights issues, but about many different segments of society, whether it's people feel pressured to cover because they may have dreadlocks in a business context, and they may be deemed--and they may be told outright that's not an acceptable hairstyle at this company. What sorts of legal issues or legal patterns should be developed to deal with that?
Mr. YOSHINO: First of all, Farai, I just want to underscore what you've said, which is that the demand to cover is not just something that's specific to gay people, but it's something that all civil rights groups confront. And in fact, it's something that all Americans confront. So here I'm thinking about, as you say, the African American woman who is told that she can't wear cornrows or dreadlocks to work, or the Latina who is told that she can't speak Spanish in her English-only workplace.
I'm thinking also about women who are told to quote, unquote, “play like men at work.” And so what we really see here is that all of these groups, even though they are ostensibly protected under American civil rights laws, have yet to be protected against covering demands as such. And so what I advocate in the book is that if the employer says, well, you as an African American woman have to take out your cornrows, this was a 1981 case, then at a minimum I would want the employer to have to state why that would be the case.
And if the reason were nothing more then well this actually reminds me that you're an African American, or some generic statement like, we all need to look the same, then I would actually rule in favor of the plaintiff.
CHIDEYA: Just to put this in a racial context. It seems to me what you're saying is that those who were the est, black-est for example, are the ones who would be the most at the detriment or most at the mercy of issues of covering. So that covering would, it seems to me, dictate that people who seemed the blackest by whatever measure you chose, would fair the worse. Is that accurate?
Mr. YOSHINO: Exactly right. So it puts minority communities in this terrible, terrible dilemma, which is to say, do you actually have pride in your cultural identity, or do you assimilate to white norms because you know that you're going to be able to adapt more. And so African American communities are fracturing along the lines of individuals who are, quote/unquote “acting white” on the one hand, and individuals who are taking a hit in terms of mainstream society by trying to preserve an African American identity or culture.
CHIDEYA: It seems to me that the idea of covering in some ways so far has put the burden of proof or the burden of choice on the individuals in America's various groups. Should the government be forced to take back some of the oneness of making decisions for protection, and what would that entail?
Mr. YOSHINO: Absolutely. That's an incredibly astute question, because I feel like one of the things that is so harmful about covering is that it places too much of the burden on the minority individual and not enough on either the state or the employer.
So what I'm here to advocate is that individuals be given as much autonomy to perform their identities as possible. And when the employer's estate says you actually have to behave in ways that are consummate with a dominant norm, that's just white supremacy or male supremacy or straight supremacy under a different guise.
CHIDEYA: Kenji Yoshino is the author of Covering: The Hidden Assault on our Civil Rights. I'm sure that there will be a lot more stories to tell in this journey. Thank you, Kenji.
Mr. YOSHINO: Thank you so much, Farai.
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